The history of Cibola, the Seven Cities of Gold, dates back to 713, when the Moors invaded Portugal and Spain and dominated the Iberian Peninsula.
Portuguese bishops took gold and priceless religious artifacts from the city of Porto and sailed to a secret location that was only accessible by boat, but no one knew where this mysterious place could be.
When the first explorers set foot in the Americas and saw the natives laden with gold objects, interest in the ancient legends of Cibola resurfaced with the idea that, perhaps, the lost cities of gold were located in the Americas.
Cortez and the New World
The wealth of the Aztec Empire and the subsequent looting of its cities by Hernan Cortez contributed to the belief that the Americas were the secret location of the Seven Cities of Gold that were just waiting to be discovered and plundered.
The complex and sophisticated society of the Aztecs and the gold artifacts they created only fueled the Spaniards’ desire for New World gold.
The Narvaez Expedition
In 1527, under the leadership of Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca, the Narvaez Expedition left from Cuba to Florida with 600 men. The expedition’s official objective was to colonize the region for Spain, but off the record, the group was in search of the legendary gold of the Aztecs.
Lost in uncharted territory, the expedition soon ran out of supplies and was repeatedly attacked by the natives. Still, they continued.
De Vaca and three other members of the group managed to reach northern Mexico after eight years. During this period, men had already had many interactions with Native Americans.
One of the surviving members of the Narvaez Expedition was a Spanish slave named Estaban, described as a Moor from Azamoor, a town on the Moroccan coast.
Estaban spoke several languages and was an educated man despite his status as a slave. During the Narvaez Expedition, he was often sent at the head of the group to act as a scout and announce the group’s arrival to the tribal chiefs.
It was on one of these scouting trips that Estaban heard a fantastic story about seven golden cities located to the north, where the citizens were all wealthy and wore fine clothes and the buildings were built on several levels.
Despite the group’s efforts, the cities were never found, but the story spread.
Marcos de Nice, an Italian Franciscan friar and missionary, was one of the first explorers of the American Southwest and traveled to this area after hearing the story of Estaban because he was sure that the lost cities of Cibola were located there.
He also got more information from the indigenous peoples of Mexico and Central America, who told him that the gold in their possession came from the large cities of the north.
De Niza searched for Cibola in what is now Arizona and New Mexico and when he returned to Spain he had a wonderful story to tell. He talked about venturing north and eventually finding a dazzling city of gold that he described as having large streets, beautiful statues and tall buildings.
Although most historians believe the friar was lying, he was appointed to guide the next expedition, the Coronado Expedition.
The Coronado Expedition
Friar Marcos de Niza joined the Coronado Expedition led by Vazques de Coronado between 1540 and 1542, and like Cortez before him, Coronado was sure he could amass great wealth in the lost cities of the Americas.
His expedition found the Zuni village with several floors adobe houses. There were wide streets through the village and small amounts of gold, but this was not the Cibola that de Niza had described, but it could nevertheless have been the “rich city to the north” that was described by the natives of Mexico.
Coronado was unconvinced, so he attacked and tortured the Zuni people in an attempt to make them reveal the hiding place of their great treasures of gold. It soon became obvious that there was no rich treasure and Coronado was forced to return to Spain empty-handed.